A master basketmaker, Henry Jake Arquette specializes in the utility baskets traditionally made by the Haudenosaunee Mohawks—pack, laundry, picnic, wedding, and corn washing baskets woven out of black ash. This art form was traditionally carried out by men due to the labor required to pound the black ash logs into splints for the baskets, and today Arquette is one of the few individuals who knows not only how to perform this work, but also how to locate the correct black ash trees that face environmental threats.
Arquette, whose Mohawk name is Atsienhanonne which means "fire keeper," was born in 1931 and grew up on the Akwesasne Reservation, located along the St. Lawrence River in the far north of New York State bordering Canada. He learned to make baskets from his father and grandfather and recalls that as a child he could hear the sound of men pounding black ash logs to make splints for the baskets from miles around. Forgoing power tools for the implements that were passed down to him by his father and grandfather, Arquette creates his utility baskets out of black ash splints with sturdy handles made of white ash.
A retired ironworker who spent much of his career working on bridges and skyscrapers across the country, Arquette supplemented his income during hard times by making and selling his baskets. In 1993, Arquette retired from ironworking and began making baskets full time. Today he is a revered community elder, and his skills as a master basketmaker are known across the region. He has mentored others in the art form and taught at the Akwesasne Cultural Center in Hogansburg, New York, for 25 years. His baskets are in collections all over the world including the National Museum of the American Indian.
In 1994, he and other Mohawk basketmakers received the Traditional Arts of Upstate New York’s North Country Heritage Award, and in 2004 he was recognized individually with the same award. His baskets are in collections around the world, including the National Museum of the American Indian.
Environmental threats such as over-harvesting, pollution, insect infestation, and plant disease have threatened the black ash trees on which this art form depends. Arquette has played an advocacy role in protecting this resource. He was recognized by the National Aboriginal Forestry Association with the Ross Silversides Forestry award in 2001.
Martha Cooper Photo | Courtesy of TAUNY Archives